Fast Food at American Hospitals

Many hospitals have as many as five different fast food outlets, according to the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, which surveyed hospital food in 2011 at more than 100 major U.S. hospitals. The report’s top five “worst hospital environments” served meals from the fast food restaurants direct to their patients.

My frustration with food and nutrition’s status in healthcare began while I worked at Jackson Hospital campus in Miami. The hospital’s public food court consisted of a McDonald’s, Dunkin’ Donuts, Cuban food (delicious but no where near considered “healthy”), and Subway. Unfortunately, the hospital’s private employee and patient cafeteria did not offer better options. I vividly remember during my first day at the job spending ten minutes pacing around the cafeteria searching to find any whole, real food lunch options. The cafeteria was filled with overly processed, quick serve junk. That was the first and last day I chose to eat lunch at the hospital’s cafeteria.

I took advantage of my thirty minute lunch break by walking two blocks towards a residential area outside the hospital complex to visit a produce street cart. The food cart was run by an adorable older Honduran couple who sold salads, produce, and to-go lunches. I would buy a container of diced up avocados, cucumbers, and onions covered in vinegar and cayenne pepper. Depending what was in season, I would buy whichever fruit was in season (papaya, plums, bananas, or watermelons). For $5, I received a veggie salad, fruit salad, and una oportunidad para practicar mi espanol.

The experience seemed very paradoxical to me. I would have to leave a “healthcare” facility to eat something that was beneficial to my health. On days I brought my lunch from home, I would eat in the hospital’s courtyard to enjoy the sun and people watch (If you have ever been to Miami, you know people watching in Miami is world class). During my time observing patients and providers, I was disturbed with the food choices and eating habits. I would watch morbidly obese wheelchair-bound patients guzzle down large Diet Cokes, double cheeseburgers, and fries, then get wheeled straight back to the cardiac unit.

I felt like I was taking crazy pills (please note the Zoolander’s Mugatu reference). Did no one else associate the connection between patients’ diet and their health outcomes? I am glad I am not the only one speculating fast food in healthcare facilities. Recently, I read an article by Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, Hazardous Hospital Foods: How Fast Food Jeopardizes Public Health. The article elaborated on hospital and fast food contracts which promote fast food consumption at their hospitals.

There is no debate of fast food’s negative implications for health.  According to the PCRM article, a McDonald’s website even advised its employees that “people with high blood pressure, diabetes, and heart disease must be very careful about choosing fast food because of its high fat.” Bacon, hot dogs, and other processed meats that are fast-food staples are known to promote cancer, heart disease, and diabetes. And studies have shown that chicken samples from Chick-fil-A and other fast-food chains contain PhIP, a carcinogen linked to breast, colon, and prostate cancer.

My hope is articles similar the PCRM, general public awareness, and patients’ demand for healthy foods help transform hospitals’ food to the health promoting foods that patients deserve.